Insights and Analysis

The Women Leaders Who Drive Aquino’s Reform Agenda

March 5, 2014

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesFor a president who was so greatly influenced by his mother and surrounded by sisters, it’s perhaps not that surprising that Simeon Benigno Aquino III has appointed women to some of the highest positions of his administration. A confirmed bachelor, he has parried queries about marriage from media and friends, and has publicly stated, both in jest and utmost seriousness, that he has sacrificed his love life in order to make good on his promise to his father to keep his family safe. Now that he is president, he has appointed strong and influential women in his government: a Supreme Court Chief Justice, a Department of Justice Secretary, a Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary, an Ombudsman, a Bureau of Internal Revenue Chief, a Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, and chair of the government peace panel. Many of the president’s “men” who are in positions that are crucial in achieving his reform agenda are actually women.

Women in office in Philippines

In the recently released World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report,” the Philippines ranked 5th out of 136 countries in closing the gender gap. Photo/Karl Grobl

With such an array of strong women in government, it is no wonder that the Philippines is making strides in closing the gender gap. In the recently released World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report,” the Philippines ranked 5th out of 136 countries in closing the gender gap. It moved up three places due to small improvements in the economic participation and opportunity sub-indices. It ranks 10th on the political empowerment sub-index and remains the highest-ranking country in Asia. The Philippines is the only country in Asia that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health.

In 2010, President Aquino campaigned for a corruption-free Philippines and won with the highest percentage of votes since democracy was restored in 1986. His administration faced tough issues, including widespread public distrust of government, high levels of corruption, electoral fraud that previously legitimized an illegitimate government, and a culture of impunity and abuse that perpetrates violence and warlordism, such as the case of the massacre of unarmed civilians and journalists in Maguindanao in 2009. In 2010, Filipinos had a sense of renewed hope when Aquino took office, and equally important, that he would be able to bring lasting peace to the Mindanao region. To achieve this, he appointed women in crucial positions in government to address the impunity and the non-functioning rule of law, support the filing of high-profile graft cases, and negotiate peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Lawyer-academician Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno is the 24th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At 53, she is the youngest person to be appointed to the Supreme Court in this century. Chief Justice Sereno faces the daunting task of ensuring the timely and predictable resolution of court cases and the return of public trust in an institution that stands to be the supreme interpreter of the law.

Leila Magistrado de Lima, secretary of the Department of Justice (DoJ), was chair of the Human Rights Commission when Aquino appointed her as justice secretary. Since her appointment as secretary, de Lima has been working on high-profile cases, including the Maguindanao massacre and most recently, the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), also known as pork barrel. Together with Ombudsman Conchitina Carpio-Morales and Chief State Auditor Grace Pulido-Tan, Secretary de Lima has been busy filing cases against officials implicated in the pork barrel scam. She and Ombudsman Carpio-Morales have assured the public that they will prosecute the lawmakers regardless of their party affiliation.

Breaking from tradition, in 2010 President Aquino chose to be sworn into office by then Associate Justice Conchitina Carpio-Morales rather than by then Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was later impeached due to corruption charges. President Aquino had opposed the midnight appointment of Chief Justice Corona by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Associate Justice Carpio-Morales was the first female magistrate to administer the oath of office to the highest official of the land. In 2011, President Aquino appointed her Ombudsman, a position that was critical in the filing of graft and corruption charges against government officials. Having won the elections with an anti-corruption campaign, President Aquino said it was crucial to have an Ombudsman who was not only perceived to be incorruptible, but who was also not afraid to act on corruption cases.

In 2011, President Aquino took up the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and was successful in signing the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” in October 2012. The signing and all the subsequent annexes can be attributed to the doggedness of two women in the peace negotiations: Teresita “Ging” Quintos-Deles, presidential adviser on the peace process, and Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, current chair of the government peace panel.

In her statement delivered at the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York on March 5, 2013, Ging Deles highlighted the essential role that women have played in the peace process in Mindanao, stating that the signing of the Framework Agreement was a “historic turning point” in bringing an end to the violence of internal armed conflict.

Prof. Coronel-Ferrer is an accomplished academic and a longtime peace advocate. Her appointment as chair of the peace panel was considered to “signify continuity and harmony” in the talks. Since the talks started in 1997, there have been women in the panel (Irene Santiago, Raissa Jajurie, Bai Abubakar), but it was only in 2012 that a woman was appointed as chair.

Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman leads the agency’s efforts to address poverty, including the Conditional Cash Transfer Program, which is considered one of the biggest contributors to the president’s ongoing popularity. Since last year, she has remained the positive face of the government’s response to the country’s triple disasters: the Zamboanga crisis in September, the earthquake in Bohol in October, and Typhoon Haiyan in November. Secretary Soliman has remained steadfast and indefatigable in the relief and recovery efforts amid criticism from the media over alleged government inaction.

Last but not the least is Bureau of Internal Revenue Chief Kim Henares, who has the thankless job of not only ensuring that all citizens file and pay the correct taxes but also in running after tax evaders and grafters. Recognizing that the BIR is notoriously known as one of the most corrupt offices in government, Chief Henares agreed to work with President Aquino and Finance Secretary Purisima because she felt that they all had “a very clear sense of what is right and what is wrong … and why they are into public service.”

However the presence of these women is not reason enough to gloat over the Philippines’ high ranking in gender equality. Government officials should be reminded that the higher the office, the stronger the fall should they be tainted by corruption scandals, or be accused of betraying the public trust. They need only to refer to the most recent case in history, that of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is currently under hospital arrest facing corruption charges, in particular, the misuse of $8.8 million in state lottery funds. Or think of the women who have been complicit in the misuse of congressional funds. In reality, it is what these women do while they are in government that matters most.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s director of programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.



  1. A Conversation with Philippines Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno - The Asia Foundation - […] Forum “Global Gender Gap Report” ranked the Philippines 7th out of 145 countries in closing the gender gap—the only…

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